New Mexico, 1871. Jane (Natalie Portman) asks her ex-fiancé Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) to help defend her homestead and wounded husband Bill (Noah Emmerich) against grudge-holding outlaw John Bishop (Ewan McGregor) and his gang.
Though the Western has been declared dead since the mid-1970s, more cowboy films were released in the last year than superhero movies. The genre appeals to directors, writers and stars with a sense of film (and American) history, even if it takes a super-production like The Revenant or The Hateful 8 to break out of a nostalgia niche and get much audience attention. In theory, Jane Got a Gun – a personal project for star/producer Natalie Portman – ought to settle into the corral with solid and ambitious pictures like The Homesman, Bone Tomahawk, Slow West and The Salvation, offering a contemporary take on an archetypal siege/revenge/showdown tale, with pint-sized Portman showing frontier grit as a determined, gun-toting heroine.
However, this has been a troubled project. Original director Lynne Ramsay departed in acrimony just before shooting to be replaced by Gavin O’Connor, cast-members Jude Law and Michael Fassbinder similarly skedaddled (Fassbinder made Slow West instead), replacement male lead Joel Edgerton got to do a script rewrite (was it his idea that his romantic rival Noah Emmerich spend the whole film wounded in bed?) and the finished film has been held up for three years. The upshot is a story shot full of holes with unwieldy flashbacks, inconsistencies of character (Jane coolly kills a baddie early on but is less hardened later) and geography (enemies who have supposedly been searching for each other for years seem to live about twenty minutes’ ride apart) and many references to deleted or unfilmed scenes.
The stars are mismatched and misaligned: Portman plays (pretty well) as if she were in a grim Western version of I Spit On Your Grave, Edgerton (whose script for The Gift was terrific) makes a bland hero who gets over alcoholism between scenes and McGregor’s black-hat villain is less subtle than Dick Dastardly. It has a decent action finale, near-infallible Western landscape and some minor whiskery eccentricity going for it, but in the end Jane Got a Gun is a couple of cowboys short of a posse.